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December 30, 2007 | 6:30 p.m.

Subject to Change

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Ecclesiastes 3:1–2, 8
Matthew 2:16–23


I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, about a twenty-minute subway ride from the ocean and a magical place called Coney Island. New York in the summer can be and often is like a sweltering sweat box. This was especially true for most people there when I was growing up, because the closest thing they had to air-conditioning was an electric fan blowing over a block of ice in a basin, thus adding to the already oppressive humidity.

I was five years old when I first laid eyes on the ocean. One scorching day in August, my father took my younger brother and me to the beach at Coney Island in the hope of getting some relief from the heat by catching a few ocean breezes. A whole new carnival world opened up to me at Coney Island with its huge roller-coaster ride along with other amusement park attractions, its long and broad boardwalk lined with all kinds of fascinating stores and shops and eating places, along with wild and weird sideshows of one sort or another. Strange smells filled the air from a combination of odors from the ocean, the salt air, and from exotic and not-so-exotic food being cooked. As I said, it was a whole new world that had opened up to a wide-eyed little boy.

But what I marveled at most was the ocean, vast and seemingly endless, glistening like a sea of diamonds in the sunlight. My brother and I walked down to water’s edge, closely followed by my father, who had instructed me to hold my younger brother’s hand so as to keep him from wandering out into the surf, which I discovered later had a strong undertow. There we both stood, the water lapping up over our bare feet as the waves came crashing in and as the water quickly receded, leaving behind a deposit of sand pebbles, seashells, sea urchins, and an occasional fish that flip-flopped on the sand, gasping for breath until the water flowed back onto the shore and then carried it back out to its natural habitat in the ocean.

As I stood there watching the ebb and flow of the ocean, I remember being mesmerized in wonder as to how that happened. Had I known the words I suspect I would have been asking myself, “How do they do that?” Years later I came to realize that it had to do with the moon and something called gravitational pull. Or at least that’s what I had been told.

Tucked away in the middle of the Bible between the book of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon, is the book of Ecclesiastes. It is often considered a strange book by those who wonder why in the world it was included in the Bible. After all, it is a bit of a hodgepodge of philosophical and theological reflections along with some practical guidance about how to live. Yet there hovers over it a certain weariness and pessimism and the stench of death, as the author laments the futility of life with his words “all is vanity.” Even though he argues that with all its problems and perplexities life is better than death, I get the impression that he is whistling in the dark.

At the same time there is wisdom to be found in this “strange” book, and no more so than in the first eight verses of the third chapter:

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

With these words, the author of Ecclesiastes sets forth in poetic fashion his understanding of the predetermined cycles of human existence, the givens of life that, in spite of our tinkering, seem to be as predictable as the ebb and flow of the ocean. In this poem of times and seasons, and in a series of polarities, he reminds us of the ebb and flow of life, from birth and death to war and peace and everything else in between. In a word, life is subject to change, and we along with it.

Of course, there are many in the world for whom a change in their lot, at least one for the better, never comes. Grinding poverty that never ends, violence and abuse that never cease, addictions that never let go of their hold are conditions that never seem to be subject to change, except in some fantasy of denial or in some tenacious hold on hope.

Yet even in these kinds of intractable circumstances, change occurs, however imperceptible at times. Things get better or they get worse. The status, upon close examination, does not remain quo, at least for long. What is true of circumstances is also true of the people in them. We become more despairing or more hopeful, depending not only on our ever-changing circumstances but on our ever-changing moods as well. In the darkest of depression there are intimations of elation, and at the height of ecstasy there is the shadow of sadness. Life and we with it are subject to change, subject to ebb and flow.

In her book Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh asserts that security lies in the acceptance of the ebb and flow of life, the “intermittency” of life, as she calls it. She maintains that we have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life that we leap at the one in terror of the other. We grasp at life when it is full and flowing and resist in terror any suggestion that it will ebb and recede, in fear that it will never return (pp. 107–109). If things go well for us, we live with anxiety that the other shoe will drop and things, as the saying has it, will go south. (I have often wondered what Southerners think about that expression.) On the other hand, we may be so accustomed to experiencing the ebb tides of life, the downside of things, when there is one setback after another, one failure on the heels of another, that there is no room in our imagination that something good could occur and that one could still hope for a reversal of fortune, a change for the better.

Indeed, some people are more afraid of success than of failure, and any good thing that happens to them or any success they may achieve is treated with suspicion, sometimes to the point of finding a way to sabotage the success and thereby pluck defeat and failure from the jaws of victory and success.

Rather than either insisting upon or assuming permanency and continuity in life, writes Lindbergh, we do well to realize that the only continuity possible in life is in its ebb and flow, its fluidity that prevents stagnation and generates growth. She concludes, “The sea recedes and returns eternally” (p. 110).

From the outset, Jesus experienced the ebb and flow of life, its intermittency. From the beginning, as we are reminded by the story of his birth, Jesus’ life was being constantly subject to change. No sooner had he been born than a hothead named Herod, King of Judea, was out to kill him, and his parents had to get out of Bethlehem and flee to safety in Egypt. Later they were informed that Herod had died and they could return now to the land of Israel and to the town of Nazareth. One wonders if they were considered illegal or undocumented immigrants or aliens in those days and what chance they would have had in our society today.

Change continued to be his lot in life, from the time of his temptation in the wilderness, to being declared Messiah by one of his disciples, to being denied as ever being known by that same disciple, to being cheered by the crowds with the words “Hail him!” to being jeered by that same crowd a few days later with the words “Nail him!” And then it happened. The cross, the crucifixion. “For everything there is a season, and a time: a time to be born, and a time to die.” It was his time now. But even that was subject to change three days later. And a little barefoot boy who years ago stood on the seashore watching the ocean’s ebb and flow, now a grown man and much older, continues to be in awe and wonder about the mystery of resurrection and asks, “How did he do that?”

In the midst of Christmastide and the celebration of his birth, we come to this Table tonight to commemorate his death and to give thanks for God’s redeeming love. Here at the Table we embrace the ebb and flow of life, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. It’s all here at the Table, in the bread and in the cup, in the body broken and the blood shed to remind us of the message and meaning of Christmas, that in all of life’s intermittency we are not ultimately alone, that God is with us.

In his searing, post-apocalyptic novel The Road, Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a father and his young son walking alone through a burned-out America. The landscape has been ravaged and everything is covered with ash. It is bitterly cold; there is little food except that which they can scavenge. Their threadbare clothing is augmented by an occasional blanket that someone else discarded on the road. They are trying to make their way to the coast in the hope that they can be rescued before they die. To make matters worse, they have to be on the lookout for and figure out how to avoid being spotted by lawless bands of predators who would kill them and probably eat them in order to keep from starving themselves. What keeps them going is their love for each other and their fierce determination not to abandon each other.

They finally reach the coast and wait in vain to be rescued. As they do so, the father, who had been spitting up blood for some little while, succumbs and dies. Just before death comes, the boy and his father have one last conversation about a little boy they had encountered earlier on the road and about whom they could do nothing.

Do you remember that little boy, Papa?
Yes, I remember him.
Do you think that he’s all right that little boy?
Oh yes. I think he’s all right.
Do you think he was lost?
No. I don’t think he was lost.
I’m scared that he was lost.
I think he’s all right.
But who will find him if he is lost? Who will find the little boy?
Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.
(pp. 280–281)

And so goodness comes to a stable, and it comes to a table. It comes to meet us, and it comes to give itself up for us. It comes to us in the person of a newborn baby in a manger, and it comes to us in the person of a man on a cross. It comes to us on the road we travel ourselves, and it comes to us to let us know that we do not travel by ourselves. It comes to us in our loneliness, and it comes to us in our lostness. It comes to us when nothing seems to change, and it comes to us when we are most subject to change.

Goodness comes to us in the midst of life’s ebb and flow. Because it does, we can say with the hymn writer

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Something to think about in the midst of Christmastide and on the cusp of a new year.